Despite its flawed script and troubled production history, the 1981 crime drama Nighthawks is a thoroughly entertaining product of what now seems a more innocent time; when a 15-million dollar production could still convey an authentic grit, and before anybody could imagine terrorism hitting New York City.

Along the way to becoming one of the most bankable action movie stars of the ‘80s, Sylvester Stallone, as screenwriter and director, developed a populist cinema of the sensitive tough guy fighting the system. So it’s fascinating that the decade’s epitome of macho begins and ends this movie—spoiler alert!—in drag.

The movie opens with a pair of incidents on New Year’s Eve. In New York, a nurse walks home from work along a dark street while thugs lay in wait to attack. Surprise!—that nurse turns out to be Deke DaSilva (Stallone), a cop working undercover with his partner Sgt. Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, across the pond in London, Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer, in his first American movie) launches a reign of terror, setting off a bomb in a department store perfume counter. This twin action is an apt metaphor for Stallone’s approach; like that seemingly helpless nurse, you can’t underestimate this guy just because he’s vulnerable, and like an exploding perfume counter, he takes something intimate (a personal scent or the close-held dreams of Rocky Balboa) and transforms it into wildly entertaining spectacle.

Nighthawks primarily follows something broader, the cat-and-mouse game between DaSilva and Wulfgar, as New York’s finest try to prevent the international terrorist from turning the Big Apple into applesauce. Although Stallone was responsible for a shift in emphasis that trimmed some of Hauer’s scenes from the film (and the studio all but wrote out Lindsay Wagner’s role as the cop’s ex-wife), the symbiotic relationship between DaSilva and Wulfgar—good and evil—leads to the movie’s most impressive set piece.

After police learn that Wulfgar murdered a stewardess he picked up in a disco (and left behind such absurdly obvious clues as a map where he circles the Wall Street corner he plans to blow to smithereens), DaSilva and his colleagues make their way through New York’s discos in search of their suspect. The discovery scene is fabulous, and until recently most home video versions scored it to generic heavy rock. A Shout! Factory Blu-Ray restores the proper score: As the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” plays, DaSilva’s hawk-eyes sweep the dance floor in search of his prey when he lights on Wulfgar dancing with a fresh pick-up. Stallone and Hauer, both in peak physical form, stare each other down as the soundtrack switches to Keith Emerson’s “I’m a Man,” which given the scenes that frame the movie suggest an unusual subtext. But the music cue also simply brings home the film’s basic conflict between man the killer and man the hero. When the dichotomous pair’s eyes meet, DaSilva shouts across the dancefloor, “Wulfgar!”—making movie magic as only 1981 could.

Along with Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Stallone, with his breakout Rocky, was only the third person to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and Best Screenplay in the same year. Though Stallone doesn’t get creative billing on Nighthawks, his fingerprints are all over it, as he did uncredited screenplay work and directed a subway chase scene after the movie’s first director, Gary Nelson, was fired, replaced by first-time feature director Bruce Malmuth. While Stallone’s star power may have led to a smaller role for Hauer, not all of the script’s changes benefited the rising star. Lindsay Wagner explains, in a bonus interview on the Shout! Factory Blu-Ray, that her character’s relationship with DaSilva was originally more developed, and the scenes that didn’t make it into the film revealed a more sensitive side of Stallone’s acting that he hadn’t explored before—or since.

Which leaves the film’s final reveal—even if you know what’s coming—as a strange and fantastic manifestation of Stallone’s sensitive side. Nighthawks is a blip on the way to what would become an increasingly cartoonish stint as an action icon. As the actor has grown older and wiser, he has become more human again, showing the vulnerability of the aging hero—tell me you didn’t cry during Creed and I’ll tell you you’re lying. Here, the hero is still ready to save the world—or at least New York.

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